When I was little there was a sort of hierarchy among kids who self-identified as ‘clever.’ Which was code for ‘we suck at sports and have no other source of self-esteem.’ We would try to impress each other by reading clever books. Or by lying and saying we’d read clever books when we hadn’t. One of the books I used to lie and said I’d read was The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper.
In actual fact it was too hard and my attention span was too short at the time. But not anymore. Now I can truthfully say I have read The Dark Is Rising.
I can see now why I had trouble with it as a kid. The language is way more ambitious and, like, literary than the Narnian fare I was used to. At the time this was just annoying. Now I like it. All that swirly snow in the first chapter — you can really see what it would be like to be in a rural farming town small enough to get cut off in winter. The atmosphere in the opening pages is just incredibly dark and brooding and ominous. “The Walker is abroad,” says the old farmer. “And this night will be bad, and tomorrow will be beyond imagining.” Yes, Susan Cooper, yes! I want to know more!
Now I do. Lots more. There’s lots of stuff to love in TDIR: the creepy carnival head, the Book of Gramarye, the squawky rooks, all the lovely Welsh mythology, the whole fantasy of being “chosen.” In this case, 11-year-old Will finds out that he is an Old One, an immortal being destined to fight an endless struggle with the forces of the Dark. In other words, through no special effort of his own, he suddenly finds out that he is awesome. It’s not un-Harry Potter-like.
And yet, even at my advanced age, I struggled to finish TDIR. I just wished I liked everybody more. Will is a bit of a chilly customer. A friend of mine described the book as all symbols, no characters, and I get what she means: there’s a lot of very earnest talk about ultimate good and ultimate evil, but not a lot of warm human interaction. And Will’s Gandalf/Dumbledore mentor/father figure, Merriman, got on my nerves a bit. Maybe it’s just my Oedipal rage playing up, but it seems like he’s always laying into Will for screwing up in ways that he, Merriman, could have prevented by just being a little less mysterious all the time. Like when Will first forms a circle with the other Old Ones, but then he let’s go when he’s not supposed to. Whoops! You just killed that beautiful maternal Lady-person you just met! Nice going kid. I hope you feel bad.
Not that there isn’t a lot of primo good fantasy in The Dark Is Rising. But at the risk of sacrificing nerd cred by damning everybody’s beloved childhood series, I probably won’t go on to the rest of the books. Score one for the forces of Darkness.
p.s. Wikipedia trivia: Susan Cooper was married to Hume Cronyn. Freaky.
p.p.s. Apparently they recently made a movie of The Dark Is Rising, under the title The Seeker? I was not informed.